Disappearances of journalist, researcher in Brazilian Amazon spark international outcry

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(NEW YORK) — International outcry continues over the disappearances of British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous rights expert Bruno Araújo Pereira, who have been missing in a remote region of the Brazilian Amazon since Sunday.

The two men were last heard from by colleagues while travelling by boat in the Javari Valley region near the border with Peru.

Phillips was on one of his last reporting trips for an upcoming book he was writing as part of a 2021 fellowship awarded by the Alicia Patterson Foundation, according to Margaret Engel, the U.S. journalism foundation’s executive director.

As of Friday, authorities in Brazil said they were testing samples of blood on a possible suspect’s boat, but the two men remain missing.

Authorities have questioned five others since the investigation started, but no arrests related to the disappearances have been made, a source with the Brazilian federal police told ABC News.

At a vigil outside the Brazilian embassy in London on Thursday, Phillips’ family members urged Brazilian authorities to continue the search.

“We want to find out what is happening to them, and we want anyone responsible for any criminal acts to be brought to justice,” Sian Phillips, the sister of Dom Phillips, said. “We want a persistent, deep and open investigation.”

They were joined by environmentalist groups in appealing to Brazilian authorities, after accusations that responding agencies were slow to act. This adds to a growing chorus of activists, celebrities and news organizations who have expressed concern for the safety of Phillips and Pereira.

Legendary Brazilian soccer star Pele tweeted a video Wednesday of Phillips’ wife Alessandra Sampaio giving a tearful plea to intensify the search.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro initially appeared to cast blame on Phillips and Pereira saying they “were on an adventure that is not recommended.” He continued, “It could be an accident, it could be that they were executed, anything could have happened.”

Those comments were “obviously upsetting” to the family said Paul Sherwood, Sian Phillips’ partner.

People close to Phillips and Pereira refute that this was a reckless excursion. Engel, who was collaborating with Phillips on his upcoming book, said, “Nothing he did was off-the-cuff,” before adding, “He was not naïve about the dangers that were there.”

Soraya Zaiden, who works closely with Pereira at Indigenous rights organization Univaja, said he was unlikely to put anyone in danger.

“He loves what he does and never takes inconsiderate risks,” Zaiden said. “He is the one who is helping to create safety protocols for the monitoring.”

Violence has taken place in the past in this part of the Amazon where illegal mining activities, drug trafficking and deforestation is resisted by groups trying to preserve the rainforest and the culture of its Indigenous inhabitants. A member of the Brazilian government agency FUNAI, which is tasked with protecting Indigenous peoples’ interests, was shot and killed in the Javari Valley in 2019, advocates told ABC News.

Pereira also previously worked for FUNAI.

“When Bolsonaro took offices, FUNAI region directors including Bruno were replaced,” Antenor Vaz, a former FUNAI coordinator, said. “We also lost at least 40 % of our resources.”

ABC News obtained a letter sent to Pereira about a week before him and Phillips went missing. In it, the anonymous sender wrote, “Bruno from FUNAI sends the Indians to seize our engines and to take our fishes.” It continues, “I am just warning you this time that if you carry on this way it will be worst of all for you.”

The timing of Phillips and Pereira’s disappearances coincides with the Summit of the Americas, where many Latin American leaders, including Bolsonaro, convened in Los Angeles with President Joe Biden. Environmental organizations protested there too, urging Biden to not meet with Bolsonaro, who has previously downplayed the effects of deforestation in the Amazon and its impact on climate change.

The case of the missing men was raised by some environmental advocates who demanded answers from Bolsonaro on the whereabouts of the two men.

“Where are Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira?” demonstrators asked.

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